Political Landscape

A thin line between insurgency and local politics in Badakhshan


The competition between strongmen in Badakhshan until recently took place mainly at the local level – commanders would vie with each other for the control of poppy cultivation and trafficking or mine extraction. Patronage from the centre, from the Badakhshi politicians in Kabul, had also been a vital component of these struggles, but until recently a ceiling for competition had been represented by the presence of a paramount figure in Badakhshi politics, that of late Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani. After his death, political actors in the capital and in the province faced the temptation to strengthen their positions in a more assertive way. And then, insurgent activities, still very circumscribed and mainly ascribable to local armed groups with a faint connection to the Taleban elsewhere in the country, could take advantage of this increased dynamism on the part of rival political actors. This is the second part of a report by Fabrizio Foschini from Badakhshan province.

Badakhshan may not end up often on the front page of a newspaper for security incidents, but it is certainly a province where the presence and influence of armed commanders is particularly strong. One reason is that jihadi commanders in Badakhshan never lost their positions. They were never defeated, forced to run from a Taleban takeover, or required to stage a comeback after 2001 as did their colleagues in most areas of the country. Thus, they preserved their very strong status and played a pivotal role in their communities until today. They also sustained part of their firepower through two disarmament processes, DDR (2003-06) and DIAG (2006-11). And, due to the nature of the province – with its poor agricultural resources, a relatively low amount of development money, and the lack of big economic or trading hubs or diversified forms of employment – previous strongmen easily exercise leverage on the population through patronage networks. The sources of revenue that keep these networks alive mostly revolve around poppy cultivation and trafficking, and the personalised (illegal, ie, uncontrolled by the government) exploitation of a few mines.
If appointed to state positions, these commanders’ abilities to tap into these resources effectively increases further. In fact, most Badakhshi MPs in Kabul strive to have their own ‘people’ on the ground appointed as woluswal(district governor), police commander, director of education, or in any other state-sanctioned capacity likely to provide income through salaries, endow military equipment or the authority to use weapons, and put them and their activities reasonably beyond the reach of the law. These people – be they family members or political associates –in turn help to gather votes for the elections and, following an election, to produce the wealth and local political relevance that an influential parliamentarian needs.

Political actors in Kabul, who have no background in Badakhshan, also play major roles in the province, with Vice President Fahim and his Panjshiris being the most important, also given their pre-eminence in the Ministry of Interior (MoI), but this sometimes can create troubles at the Badakhshi grassroots level. The current provincial chief of police, for example, a Panjshiri, was criticised in front of AAN by a senior Jamiati from Badakhshan – who, in other respects, is far from opposing Fahim’s political influence – on merely regional grounds: ‘The police commander brought with him 52 bodyguards from Panjshir and put them on salary here, using the MoI budget for Badakhshan for his people. Now, isn’t it a shame? Kentuz [Nur Agha Kentuz, the former provincial police chief, with a PDPA background] came here with two guards and with two guards he left, he a Khalqi and you a Muslim!’ These strains – which exploded recently when a fire fight between the Panjshiri bodyguards and local guards of the mayor of Faizabad, Nazri Mohammad, left several injured last August – do not prevent, however, Fahim’s network from influencing the alliances and networks of patronage in Badakhshan.

However, in such a remote province, a certain amount of power and influence can be maintained without a direct link to Kabul political circles, and a wider range of commanders, some with an official position in the security forces, some officially sitting at home without one, are acting and competing against each other.

A remarkable trait of these powerbrokers, at least compared to other provinces, is that they are for the most part oblivious to foreigners. This nonchalance is probably increased by the withdrawal of the German contingent of the ISAF from Faizabad. Eight of Badakhshan’s central districts had already been transitioned on 24 January 2012, while the remaining 19 – outlying districts where ISAF soldiers seldom set foot – have formally been transitioned in the current, concluding tranche of enteqal(read our blog here). The PRT itself was handed over to the Afghans, and the last German troops are currently in the process of leaving. However, travelling in Badakhshan even before the withdrawal, one had the impression that immediately outside of Faizabad, foreigners were largely irrelevant as policy-makers. This must have depended largely on the fact that they were potential money-makers only for a few commanders who were located at the very centre stage (Faizabad) where they could benefit from the ISAF troops’ presence by working as private security companies (PSC) or getting logistic contracts, while this was not the case anywhere else.

This limited availability of the PSC/contractors option in Badakhshan has also meant a less legal framework of activity for a majority of the commanders. In fact the private security sector and other foreign-driven contracting activities have never competed with narcotic production and trafficking as sources of revenue in the province. Badakhshan, which had experienced a significant reduction in poppy production during the years from 2004 to 2010, is now witnessing a massive return to poppy cultivation. Causes for this can be multiple, as documented by two studies from AREU (here and here) (1) but what is certain is that the kachakbaran (smuggler) networks never stopped being active along the lengthy border that the province shares with Tajikistan, access to which constitutes a major political prize and asset to be competed for.

Different examples can be given for the Badakhshi powerbrokers involved in the competition for this and other sources of revenue. Let us take for example Zalmay Khan Mojaddedi, Nazri Mohammad (2) and Sardar Khan, who are all situated at different intersections of political leadership and economic interests, with the first being a Kabul-based MP, the second the mayor of Faizabad, and the third officially just a former mujahedin commander bereft of any official position and busy tilling his fields between Baharak and Warduj. The type and size of their economic interests also differ: Zalmay Khan, although seldom, if ever, visiting the province, has an extensive string of businesses ranging from the personalised exploitation of the lapis lazuli deposits in Sang-e Sar, where his brother leads an ANP detachment in charge of the security of the mine, to having flocks of prized karakul sheep kept for him among the Kyrgyz of the Pamir; Nazri Mohammad, also the owner of a PSC which provided security to the German PRT under a lucrative contract, is allegedly liberally disposing of state land in and around Faizabad; while Sardar Khan arguably lives off the products of his land. Politically, too, they are very much different, although all share a Jamiati background. Zalmay became Karzai’s main ally in Badakhshan at an early stage in the past decade; Nazri, in the words of a senior government official in Faizabad, ‘only cares for the money, which is his father and mother. He would do anything that brings him profit.’ Not an ideologist, then, but what of Sardar? The agriculturalist is still acknowledged by many as the more respected representative of the hardcore supporters of the Shura-ye Nazar faction of Jamiat in the province, and he only narrowly failed to be elected to parliament in 2010, showing that his political ambitions are well alive.

Their being at different levels does not prevent conflicts between them. If Nazri Mohammad has few problems in ruling Faizabad almost at his will in the face of a weak, or obliging, governor, Zalmay Khan and Sardar Khan are bitterly opposed. Actually, many members of Jamiat with government positions too, and in particular those close to Shura-ye Nazar, loath Zalmay’s closeness to Karzai. Recently, the removal of the chief of border police (ANBP) for Ishkashim – the province’s major hub for drug trafficking – Wahid Khan, who had in past years joined the side of Zalmay’s supporters, has been linked to this political rivalry, which has obvious economic implications.(3) It would have been in retaliation for this attack against his politico-economic power that Zalmay Mojaddedi supported the impeachment of former Minister of Interior Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. It is possible that a sort of mutual non-aggression pact that had developed between the Kabul-based powerbrokers has been weakened by the demise of Ustad Rabbani, who – a bit like Fahim – was at the same time close to Karzai but had not strained relations with the northerners. Karzai could be much more able to patronise a weaker Rabbani – Salahuddin – and therefore the need exists for the rival side to weaken Karzai’s main operative ally in the province, Zalmay Khan. In any case, according to a Badakhshi MP, every political actor in the province has been trying much harder during the past year to assert himself to a hegemonic role.

Another of Zalmay’s proxies, the Warduj chief of police, Assadullah, is facing more direct problems with an increasingly aggressive insurgency threatening his hold over this strategic district connecting Faizabad and Baharak with Ishkashim and the Pamir. The district is the only one in Badakhshan to have seen the continued presence of insurgents during the past five years, and it has witnessed the heaviest fighting. Appointed in 2006, and rumoured to have created by himself the first security problems by harassing the families of his personal enemies, Assadullah is now blamed by many for the strengthened posture of the insurgents by his mismanagement of military operations. Indeed, on 5 December 2011, a police operation launched in reaction to an insurgent illegal checkpoint on the road ended in a catastrophe. Apart from serious casualties, 11 ANP agents, vehicles and weapons were captured by the Warduj Taleban – luckily all to be freed after some days.

This victory of the insurgents, which according to many in Badakhshan was due to the lack of preparation by Assadullah (who failed to coordinate with the police and army in Faizabad), bolstered the morale of the rebels, who increased their efforts throughout 2012 – they eventually managed to briefly occupy the district centre and set it ablaze on 30 September last (read reports herehere and here). Assadullah may have had legitimate suspicions for not informing colleagues in Faizabad about his plans, as his political support for Zalmay Mojaddedi means that he has not only friends amongst the security forces.

The presence of insurgents in Warduj is not only related to the poor personal standing of a chief of police among the local population or his political feud with rival commanders. The district hosted a religiously radical community long before that, and some locals even supported the Taleban Emirate in the 1990s. The insurgents definitely have some contacts with the Taleban leadership in Pakistan and in other areas of the country, but their ability to constitute such a thorn in the side of the government – they are a relatively small group and isolated from any other Taleban front – depends a lot on the tacit support – or at least the neutrality – with which other political actors, like Sardar Khan, witness their activities. However, a new development may soon add to the already tense security situation in the district: an Afghan Local Police (ALP) project – it would be the first in Badakhshan – has been presented to the MoI, allegedly after pressures by Zalmay Mojaddedi. It will then be seen how much economic concerns (the ALP may be able to satisfy some jobless former mujahedin) or political factionalism count in the present Warduj insurgency; the ALP could very easily strengthen polarisation and violence in the district, if packed with Assadullah/Mojaddedi supporters.

Warduj presents a complex situation, as it is no longer clear how much of the insurgency activity is local politics and how much of it is out of control and goes along with a radicalisation of the local population and real support for Taleban. However, the example could be made with other districts of Badakhshan, like Darayem, Keshm, or Tagab, where the insurgency finds itself magically appearing in those areas where the competition between rival powerbrokers is stronger – and where the conditions are often made ripe for the cultivation of poppy or heroin refining. Of course, an increased state of conflict in the province can only play in favour of the real insurgents, those with political aims.

In the meantime, some of the progress that can be reported from Badakhshan, like road construction, runs the risk of being endangered by these insurgent cells. The completion of the paved road from Keshm to Faizabad was a major success, as was the building of a decent track from the provincial capital to Kufab. Also, the construction of better roads – or of the first roads tout court – towards peripheral regions like Ishkashim or Darwaz progresses slowly, but communications can be seriously severed by insurgent activity. And this, in view of the lack of food self-sufficiency, and of being prone to natural catastrophes like avalanches, does not bode well for those frontier areas.(4)

But, at least, winter comes for everybody. The head of Badakhshan’s provincial peace council, former senator Abu Aman, when interviewed by AAN, gave a long list of successful reconciliations and reasons for insurgents to reconcile. These range from those insurgents who had been fighting to capture the attention of the government for some development project to be done in their area, those who reconciled out of respect for the memory of martyred Ustad Rabbani (as claimed by Abu Aman for the last batch of 30 insurgents from Shahr-e Bozorg, who reconciled during Martyrs Week), and those who did so through the informal channels that every provincial political actor, even the MPs in Kabul, uses to get in touch with insurgents from his or her area. Aman did not forget to mention another primary reason: Badakhshan’s harsh winter, too, will bring its own reconciliation process, as it is hard to stay out on the snowy plateau of Shiwa or in the trenches in Warduj and play the rebel through it. Or, at least, the cold weather will hopefully calm down for a while the hot-blooded, warring commanders of Badakhshan.

(1) Apart from the increased cost of basic goods of consumption and the need for rural households to face it, the greed of commanders controlling the territory and the poppy production through taxes or direct participation in the trafficking may have been aroused by an increase in prices for opium and heroin. In particular the poppy crop in Badakhshan this year may have been favoured because of the difficulties that a fungus caused to the southern provinces’ production.

(2) Nazri Mohammad (sometimes called Nasri or even Nazir) hails from
Yaftal-e Payan (or Yaftal-e Sufla) district near Faizabad. Now in his forties, he did not play any important autonomous role during the jihad, as he was a second-rank commander linked to Massud in the conflict against the Taleban, when Massud was trying to replace Rabbani’s Badakhshi commanders, notoriously unwilling to send him troops for the Takhar front, with individuals linked to his Shura-ye Nezar. Nazri came out as a prominent powerbroker only after 2002, when he was able to get the regiment under his control to be detached from the chain of command of Sardar Khan (Massud’s most important Badakhshi commander, from Baharak-Warduj), who was in charge of the army in Badakhshan (the 29th Division). Nazri’s major sponsor was by then Fahim, and he took control of Faizabad and its surroundings, pursuing an overly aggressive policy towards other commanders who often fought back; Mossadeq (Uzbek from Argu with Hezb-e Islami background) successfully resisted him. Nazri then became close to Rabbani through the eternal Deputy Governor Shams ur-Rahman (Rabbani’s nephew) and in his new capacity as the mayor of Faizabad, but he also retains close links to Fahim. He is rumoured to have occasionally created security problems to the PRT (like having rockets fired against it) to make sure that his PSC kept being paid to protect it. He is definitely more a fighter than a politician, although he has been pursuing a sort of ’Robin Hood’ agenda by ceiling prices for basic goods in the Faizabad bazaar, and consequently gained some popular support. He is not likely to create a political legacy of sorts or even to play a more than local role, but he has proven difficult to eradicate as his location in Faizabad is too strategic for the government to risk alienating him.

(3) The connection of Wahid Khan’s replacement with Fahim’s political network is vague at best; of course he is a Jamiati – like almost every security officer in this quadrant of Afghanistan. Only, as a possible hint, he comes from an area of Keshm district, Farajghan, which had been settled by Panjshiris many decades ago.

(4) This summer’s troubles in Tajikistan (read our blogs here and here), and the successive closure of the border, threatened to make things worse. The connection with Afghanistan was of course linked to international drug trafficking, and an Afghan police commander, Qari Wadud, in charge of Shohada district, but with a hand or two on the border crossing in Shughnan, seems to have been a major actor in it. At the height of the Tajik crisis, he was suddenly dismissed, arrested, and summoned to Kabul based on Tajik authorities’ complaints, but he has since been quietly reinstated in his previous position. Also, recent insurgent activity from a small, armed group from Shohada seems to have more to do with criminality than ideology – notwithstanding the district’s particularity of having a Salafi community. The killing in August of the woluswal of Shughnan in an ambush, for example, is widely believed to have been a mistake, the real target a border commissioner, and the motive a failed drug deal.

Photo by Fabrizio Foschini

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape